At 59, Tom Watson Lets Historic Victory Slip Away

This article is more than 12 years old.

As Tom Watson stood on the 18th green, where it had all slipped away not more than an hour earlier, he looked down wistfully at the trophy Stewart Cink was clutching.

Watson's name is engraved on the claret jug five times.

He must have wondered how good No. 6 would have felt.

And how much it hurt now.

A British Open that was improbable from beginning to end — anyone remember Tiger Woods missing the cut? — saved its biggest shocker for the end. A guy just a few years shy of Social Security and playing on a surgically replaced hip had a chance to win golf's oldest major.

Scratch that. Should have won.

"The old fogey almost did it," Watson said, unable to hide the sadness that he and just about everyone outside of Cink's immediate family was feeling in the fading light of a Sunday evening along the Scottish coast.

Just when everyone finally believed — "By God, can it really happen?" a BBC commentator screamed after Watson sank another clutch putt — it was snatched away in such gut-wrenching fashion that even the winner sounded a bit apologetic about taking possession of the Open's cherished prize.

"I have to be honest," Cink said. "Playing against Tom in the playoff, it's mixed feelings because I've watched him with such admiration all week. And of course it would come down to me against him in the playoff."

Give Cink his due. He capped a 1-under 69 in the final round of a major with the biggest putt of his career, a 12-foot birdie on the 72nd hole that had to go in if he was going to have any chance. When Watson opened the door, Cink busted it down with two birdies in the four-hole playoff, routing an opponent who suddenly looked his age by a whopping six strokes.

But, unfair as it may seem, the Open champion was a mere bit player in this drama.

This was all about a 59-year-old golfer who shot a 65 on the first day, led after the next two rounds and was up by a stroke heading to the 72nd hole.

The script was perfect. Watson was playing the same course where he bested Jack Nicklaus in the famous "Duel in the Sun" of 1977. Woods wasn't around to get in the way. The other contenders had largely faded away, leaving Watson to claim the lead all to himself at No. 17 with a tap-in birdie.

On to the 18th tee, where Watson pulled out the same iron he'd been using all week and hit one out to the far edge of the fairway. He decided on an 8-iron, merely needing to put it somewhere in the middle of the green, take two putts and revel in being the oldest major champion in golf history.

Julius Boros was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA Championship. Watson was poised to shatter that age barrier by more than a decade — and, for good measure, join Harry Vardon as the winningest player in Open history with six apiece.

"It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn't it?" Watson said.

He swung that 8-iron and looked up quickly, admiring the flight of the ball. Turns out he should have gone with a 9-iron.

"I hit the shot I meant to," Watson said. "When it was in the air I said, 'I like it.' And then all of a sudden it goes over the green, and I just didn't get the ball down after that."


With the ball resting up against the first cut of rough, Watson went with his putter. He didn't want to leave it short and wound up whacking it 8 feet past. Then, with a chance to win, he struck a putt that never had a chance- wide and nearly 12 inches shy of the cup.

Even as Watson tapped in a bogey that forced a playoff with Cink, both at 2-under 278, it already seemed over. All the excitement had been sucked out of the place. Everyone, Watson included, appeared to sense that a 59-year-old golfer gets only one chance to win the Open, not a do-over.

When Watson arrived at the fifth tee for the first playoff hole, he was overheard remarking to an official how cold it had gotten. That wasn't a good omen.

Cink knocked his approach shot in a pot bunker, but Watson did the same. Cink got up-and-down for par, Watson barely cleared the lip of the bunker, missed a long putt and took bogey.

It would have been better if they just stopped it there.

Still trailing by a shot, Watson yanked his tee shot into the tall grass left of the fairway of the par-5 17th, a hole that played easiest on the course and one he had birdied three of four times in regulation. He looked at his ball, buried deep, and remarked to caddie Neil Oxman, "I don't know if I can get it out of there, Ox, but I better try."

Watson swung. The ball barely moved. He took another whack and skipped it out into the fairway, finally got the ball to the green on his fourth shot, then three-putted for a double-bogey 7. Cink needed only two shots to reach the green, and two-putted for a birdie that wrapped things up.

But this isn't boxing, where the referee can step in, so on they went to the 18th. Watson hit his tee shot into the crowd, which at least gave him a chance to perk up a gallery that was cold and glum. "Y'all better get back," he said, lining up his shot. "The way I'm swinging, I may hit someone else."

Two more ugly shots followed before Watson finally chipped onto the green, tapped out for bogey and turned over the stage to Cink. But no one wanted to let Watson go.

"Tommy! Tommy! Tommy!" the fans chanted.

"The one memory?" Watson would be asked later. "Well, I think coming up the 18th hole again. Those memories are hard to forget. Coming up into the amphitheater of the crowd and have the crowd cheering you on like they do here for me.

"The feeling is mutual. And that warmth makes you feel human. It makes you feel so good."

But not even the loudest of cheers could ease the pain. This one will stick with Watson forever.

"Yes, it's a great disappointment," Watson said, his eyes misting over. "It tears at your gut, as (losing) has always torn at my gut. It's not easy to take."

Cink could sympathize.

But he's not turning over the claret jug.

"As long as the result is I get the girl, I'm OK with that," he said. "Whether Tom was 59 or 29, he was one of the field. I had to play against everybody in the field and on the course to come out on top. I don't think anything can be taken away. Somebody may disagree with that, but it's going to be hard to convince me."

This program aired on July 20, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.